Angèle Dubeau, O.C., C.Q., O.M., C.A.L.Q., DFA
One of the most prominent violin virtuosos of her generation, Angèle Dubeau has led an exceptional career for over 40 years in the great concert halls of [...]
Today, Mendelssohn’s greatness is widely acknowledged, and his Violin Concerto is for music lovers a vibrant source of pleasure. This, however, has not always been the case. A century ago, George Bernard Shaw had no qualms deriding Mendelssohn’s music, stating that it contained nothing more than “conventional sentimentality.” Opinions such as Shaw’s—not to mention Wagner’s—unfortunately, left their mark, and for a long time, it was à la mode—and expedient—for criticism to recite the usual litany of clichés: the child prodigy that had inherited Mozart’s “angelic” features; the disciple of Goethe still attached in the 1830s to a classicism the more “original composers had made passé; the devout archeologist of the Baroque; the son of wealth and high culture whose sole tragedy in life was the loss of his beloved sister.
Mendelssohn’s letters already give us a more accurate portrait, that of a man filled with anxiety, whose personality was much more complex than generally thought. But in order to fully appreciate the profound richness of his work, we must see beyond the mere surface: at the core of Mendelssohn, just as in Liszt or Brahms, is a meeting of conflicting elements that is the very nature of Romanticism—the ancient and the modern, the individual and the community. Romanticism, with Goethe as its first advocate, consecrated the cult of genius and originality. For many romantics, the “poetic,” which comprised music and all literature, was for the “elite”—those who are able to sense the nocturnal aspect of the world and can read its secret and mysterious codes.
In the 1830s, Mendelssohn already distances himself from this position, and envisions an aesthetic program that reaches for a universal communion only music could teach. Whether in Leipzig or at Berlin’s Singakademie, and in such works as the oratorios (Paulus, Elias) and the Lobgesang Symphony, most of his musical activities will be motivated by this ambitious project: instruction of the faith, of Beauty, of ethics, and of the brotherhood of all. In order to reach such goals, Mendelssohn bets on clarity: his ideal is that of a music accessible to all, and that all can understand. For the composer, the listener must be able to seize the essence of a work on a first hearing. Thus, in the Violin Concerto, we feel a concern for pure and naturally beautiful melodic lines much more present than it was in the two Piano Concertos.
The main themes of the first movement, chaste and lyrical, engrave themselves naturally in the memory of the listener—as do all things which meaning leaves no doubt. The type of virtuoso ornamentation that had brought fame to many 19th-century composers and performers is barely present, not due to what could have been a distaste for the conventions of the concerto genre (he did favor such displays in his Piano Concertos), but because it would have obscured the clarity of the lines. Even in the very delicate—which indeed makes it difficult—Allegro molto vivace, virtuosity is rarely allowed to be heard as such. Here the line, borrowed perhaps from a picturesque evocation of the fabulous world of Oberon and Titania, is so witty and limpid that it overshadows the performer’s exploits—a sign that nothing but the essence of music is present.
Form, needless to say, is also important. As is often the case with Mozart, the most intense dramatic moments are not found in the first allegro, but at the core of the work, in the slow movement. But the Andante’s introduction, as well as the short Allegretto non troppo that follows the movement, gliding gently to the dominant (B) of the finale, are true romantic traits and, by uniting the three movements as one, participate in the immediateness of the musical experience. When came time to revise the violin part and ensure its feasibility, Mendelssohn turned to his friend, the violinist Ferdinand David.
His letters to David are a precious source, for not only do they lead us through many stages of the work and give indications as to the work’s performance (“The arpeggios [in the cadenza] should start immediately a tempo and continue four-four until the tutti: is this too exhausting for the performer ?”), but they also show the integrity and modesty of this naturally talented composer (“Do not laugh at my questions… I am only groping around”). It was Ferdinand David who premiered the work on March 13, 1845, under the baton of composer Niels Gade.
The Concerto in D minor was written in 1822, when Mendelssohn was only 13 years old. Long forgotten, the manuscript of the work was, for a time, in the possession of Ferdinand David (it bears the inscription: “Received as a gift from Frau Cécile Mendelssohn-Bartholdy on May 24 1853”). The manuscript now belongs to the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who edited and published the work in 1952. Mendelssohn’s early works, those before the wonderful and fully mature outburst that was the String Octet Op. 20, often seem more akin to pastiches than to truly original productions. Two models can be found: on the one hand, of course, the classical-style composers,
Mozart and Beethoven, whose influence can be felt in the pages of the Piano Quartets (Mozart) and the Piano Sonatas in E and in B-flat major (Beethoven); on the other hand, baroque and early-classical composers are also present, and pastiches of the latter seemed to have been even more encouraged. The classical and especially the baroque hues in Mendelssohn’s early works are due to the particular climate the composer was raised in. Son of a cultured family, grandson of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, his schooling was that of humanism and classicism. Very early he became fluent in ancient Greek an Latin, studied history and philosophy. At age twelve, he met Goethe, and soon participate in the intellectual soirées organized by his parents in their Berlin home.
The composer Carl Friedrich Zelter who took care of young Felix’s musical education. Zelter was an illustrious figure in the musical life of Berlin in the early decades of the 19th century but, more importantly, he was an avid collector of old manuscripts, and defined himself as a member of Berlin’s long-lasting musical tradition. The D-minor Concerto, just as the Symphonies for string orchestra, thus has a slightly anachronistic sound (which, strangely enough, does add to its charm).
The work begins somewhat like a concerto grosso—notice the typically baroque dotted rhythm—but as soon as the violin makes its entrance, it glides toward a terrain much cultivated by the masters of early classicism. Listening to the Andante, it soon becomes clear that its wonderful melody could not have come to being without the lyricism of Mozart’s arias; here, although we are still in the territory of the pastiche, the emotion is real, the sincerity naive and touching. As for the Finale, it use of gypsy-like rhythms brings to mind Haydn’s most successful borrowings of the genre.
© Alex Benjamin